(WATCH) Dream Engineers

(Original airdate May 15, 2022)

For as much time as we spend sleeping and dreaming, and as long as we’ve studied both, they largely remain ever-mysterious, their exact function and purpose elusive. Today, we’re off to a brave new world of science surrounding sleep, dreams, and the exciting future of controlling your dreams to make your life better: dream engineering.

Rachel Raider is getting wired — for sleep. She’s about to go “lights out” as part of an experiment.

Sharyl: And what do you tend to dream about?

Rachel Raider: Usually beautiful scenery, yeah, it always just really gorgeous, like really nice scenery. I’m flying around, looking at it, sometimes taking pictures.

Sharyl: Nice. Pleasant dream!

Raider: Thank you.

Dr. Michelle Carr: And now you can close your eyes…

A few steps away, Raider’s sleep and dreaming are being observed by researchers Wil Pigeon and Michelle Carr.

Dr. Wil Pigeon: Stage one sleep is light sleep. Stage two a little deeper. Stage three a little deeper still. And then REM sleep is a completely different state of sleep. Rapid eye movement sleep, named thus about 70 years ago by the folks who discovered it.

Here at the Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Lab at the University of Rochester, Carr and Pigeon spend most of their waking hours trying to pierce the secrets of our nightlife.

Pigeon: What happens on a nightly basis, we think, is that there are a couple things at the cellular level that are occurring that are incredibly important for maintaining this brain and body, this being of ours. So one of them is to clear junk from out of our neurons, our brain cells, that accumulate during the prior waking hours. So sleep is a time in general for the body to rest and restore, as well as clean things out. Very true for the brain as well. It’s also true that we need sleep to recharge.

Far less, they say, is known about dreaming— a relatively newer side of sleep science.

Sharyl: What are some of the most universal common themes you’ve seen in dreams?

Carr: Bad dreams themes, like teeth falling out, or out of control cars, natural disasters, tidal waves, fires, earthquakes. Some positive dreams that seem to be recurring — finding money is a recurring positive theme. Another one is being in your house or in a place that you know and finding a room that you never knew existed. That’s a really positive dream experience.

Sharyl: That happens all the time to me, but it’s a haunted room. It’s a really scary room.

Carr: That’s not a good experience, but yeah, it’s a common one, and it’s kind of bizarre that that happens, that so many people would dream about finding an unknown room in their house.

Pigeon: Well there are naked sex dreams, right?

Sharyl: I don’t know. Are there?

Pigeon: The naked dreams that we have are probably related to stress dreams. So being naked is embarrassing. It’s stressful to think about that. They tend to pop up, I think, in people who are having some level of stress in their lives. For some people, that threshold is very low. For some, it’s very high.

Sharyl: What are the rules of dreams? Like, I’ve heard you don’t die in your dreams. I did die once.

Carr : Yeah, I’ve died.

Sharyl: But what are some of the rules?

Carr: Yeah, it does seem like dreams are bizarre when we compare them to the waking world. Like the laws of physics aren’t necessarily the same in the dreaming world.

Sharyl: Do a lot of people fly?

Carr: A lot of people fly in their dreams. It’s one of the most positive dream experiences, and it’s universal people report that — although there’s variation in how people fly. Some people swim through the air, or some people just Superman.

Sharyl: So the dream world just has its own set of physiological rules and everything it seems like?

Carr: Yeah, when we say dreams are bizarre, there are certain patterns of bizarreness that seem to repeat. So, I’ll be in a house — it doesn’t look anything like my house, and yet, in my dream, I know it’s my house. Or you’re looking at someone who doesn’t look anything like your mother, but you know it’s your mother in the dream. So that’s one type of bizarreness. And another thing is, there are these discontinuities, these changes that will happen. So, you’re looking and talking to a friend, and then it suddenly turns into the president, and you don’t even think twice about it.

Pigeon: Yeah, so why do we dream? One — some memory consolidation, rehearsal of memories, improving the memory system in some way. And that secondly, there’s something about emotion regulation that occurs during dreaming, that it can improve regulation of emotions in some way if it’s functioning properly.

To the first point — the learning element — that’s why Rachel Raider is here. Prior to her nap, as seen here, she was asked to study sign language to see if her recall will improve after sleep and dreaming.

Carr: This is a very typical protocol in sleep research, is looking at how sleep, and in my case, how dreams are related to learning.

There’s also emerging research on a very special type of dream.

Sharyl: What is a lucid dream?

Carr: So, a lucid dream is when you become aware of the fact that you’re dreaming while you’re still asleep and in the dream. And eventually you can start to have control of actual things in the environment, like you can say, “I want to go through a portal, and in the next room, I want to be in Paris or something like that.” And it doesn’t just show up exactly like the waking world, of course. It’s still very creative. But you start to have some level of agency over what you are doing in the dream and what your dream environment is starting to look like.

Which brings us to the emerging science of “dream engineering,” the plot of the 2010 science fiction film, “Inception.”

Pigeon: The other, I think, brave, new, almost “Inception” world is to utilize dream engineering, working with one’s dreams, to actually treat some sleep problems. So there are flying dreams that we have. And when people have a flying dream, it tends to be fairly positive. So why don’t we have more positive experiences while we’re sleeping by teaching ourselves to fly more in dreams? So that would be a little bonus, right? So nightmares are a key component of post-traumatic stress disorder — what if we could teach folks to alter their nightmares in some way so that they’re less nightmare-ish and get downgraded to a disturbing or bad dream, and ultimately get downgraded to a neutral dream?

Back to the lab, when Rachel Raider awoke after her experimental nap, Carr tested her sign language recall. It had improved, reflecting the findings among other test subjects, and opening the window into sleep’s secrets a tiny crack.

Raider: I think the more attention we pay to dreaming, I think we start treating each other better because we recognize that we’re all humans with our own hopes and fears, and it brings us all together. It’s a little cheesy, but I really believe that.

Sharyl (on-camera): The researchers say you can teach yourself to recognize when you’re actually in a dream and start learning how to control the content.

Watch cover story here.

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